Simpson Desert

In terms of bucket list destinations, the Simpson Desert is high on the list of many 4w drivers.  It offers a challenge for both the drivers and the vehicles themselves.  Preparation is the key and, unless you are a very experienced outback traveller, more than one vehicle is recommended.  Three or four vehicles would be spot on, allowing room for people and gear if one vehicle failed completely.  You will definitely need a 4wd if contemplating this trip.

To enter and camp in the Simpson Desert, you will need a Desert Parks Pass.  Even if visiting or camping at Dalhousie you will need the pass.  It costs $150 and is available online or at various tourist information centres.  It includes lots of info, detailed maps and entry into most of the outback parks. 

Sandflags are now compulsory if crossing the Simpson Desert.  Check the ParksSA website for the required dimensions.

This is not a trip to be taken lightly and you will need to be very well prepared.  A well maintained and reliable 4WD vehicle is essential.  Low range is a must and, as mentioned above, it is preferable to have at least 3 vehicles in your convoy.  There were a range of vehicles in our group ranging from a 1990 Ford Maverick (mine) right through to a 200 series Landcruiser.  All vehicles made it without too much trouble.  Other vehicles included a couple of Toyota Prados, a Nissan Patrol, a Pajero, a Triton and an Isuzu MUX.  All vehicles had one thing in common - they were all well maintained and had all received a major service before the trip.  The Isuzu MUX performed very well but it was the only vehicle that did not have modified suspension ie a lift kit.  Coincidently it was the only vehicle that bottomed out on the top of a few dunes.  it had to be recovered a few times because of this.  Heavy duty springs and shockers and a lift are just about essential.  A 2 inch lift is perfect, compromising the handling only marginally whilst providing good clearance.

Fuel has to be a major consideration and we all made sure we had 200 litres of fuel each on board before heading across the Simpson.  All the vehicle's were diesels.  Some vehicles had long range tanks but most utilised jerry cans.  I had the standard tank on the old bus, 95 litres, so I had 6 x 20 litre jerry cans lined up behind the front seats.  They were sitting flat and strapped down on a wooden floor I had thrown in.  I had bits of stiff foam between each can so they didn't rub through and I covered them all with a tarp.  I had no problems and was not overcome with diesel fumes.  However you do it, extra fuel is a must.  Even though the old 4.2 diesel was working hard at times, I only used about 110 litres, which I was quite happy with.  It's anywhere between 450 - 650 k's across depending which route you take.

Water is another essential not to skimp on.  I had about 60 litres - a 20 litre jerry can, 2 x 10 litre casks and the rest in 600ml bottles which were stashed in every nook and cranny inside the car.  This was plenty for my needs (I was solo in my vehicle).  You can save a fair bit of water if you utilise things like baby or facial cleansing wipes (for a quick wash) and BBQ wipes for washing the dishes.  Using paper plates and bowls is good too - you can throw them out; no washing.

Only pack the essentials and keep your vehicle as light as possible.  This will place less stress on your car and reduce the chance of a breakdown significantly.

Recovery equipment is another must have.  Four of the vehicles in our group had winches and we utilised these a few times.  Snatch straps came in handy as well as Max Traxx.  Experience in how to use the equipment is also a must.  The trusty long handled shovel was also invaluable.

A UHF radio is must for every vehicle and channel 10 is the Simpson Channel.  You will hear other groups on the radio and most are quite good at notifying of their approach. 

Think carefully about food; how much you will need, how to keep it fresh etc.  I calculated (roughly) how many meals I might need.  I then prepared a few different meals at home before the trip, thenvacuum sealed and froze them in individual bags.  After two weeks, I had two meals left and they were still partially frozen at the bottom of the car fridge.  Freezing them also helps keep everything in the fridge cold without the fridge having to work too hard.  A single 50 litre car fridge was fine for me (I just had to keep rotating the drinks - drink one, put one in the fridge - to make sure my drinks were always cold), but if there are few people on board, two fridges would be ideal.

There are many ways to cross the Simpson Desert, but most people either start at Dalhousie Springs at the western end of the desert and travel east to Birdsville, or start at Birdsville and travel west to Dalhousie.  It is a common belief that the west-east route is easier due the prevailing winds, which make the eastern slopes steeper and cause more sand to build up, causing softer slopes.  The western sides of the dunes are said to be gentler and slightly easier to negotiate.  We recently completed the crossing east to west and didn't have too many problems.  Another theory now is the east-west route is easier due to most people travelling west-east and chopping up the western face of the dunes.  I'm not convinced either way, but on a couple of particularly nasty dunes on the WAA Line, the western sides looked friendlier that the eastern sides we had just driven up. 

You'll have a great time no matter which way you go, but I'm glad we started in Birdsville.  It made Dalhousie a true oasis arriving there after 3 and a half days in the desert.  I guess you could say the same for Birdsville if heading west to east.  After the crossing, a shower at the Birdsville Caravan Park and a pie from the Birdsville Bakery would be very nice.

Arriving at either starting point is an adventure in itself.  Birdsville is about 1100 km's from Adelaide and you can cross the iconic Birdsville Track off your bucket list on the way.  Travel from Adelaide to Lyndhurst on the black top then hit the gravel road from Lyndhurst to Marree before heading east along the Birdsville Track.  It's about 530 km's from Marree to Birdsville along the Birdsville Track.  It is negotiable in a 2wd vehicle, but as soon as there is any amount of rain, the road quickly becomes a nightmare.  Significant falls and the authorities will close the road, so keep an eye on the weather.  As with other outback locations, it is quite possible to become stranded in Birdsville or even Marree if you are unlucky enough to be there when it pours.  There is no other option but to wait until the roads dry out.  On arrival in Birdsville, you can book in at the Caravan Park for a rest day, visit the Birdsville Pub (mad if you don't) and even wash your 4wd at the "truck wash".  Fuel is readily available along with essentials like food etc. 

Birdsville Caravan Park (above).  Cabins and powered sites are also available.  The campsite above was a big open area which caters for self sufficient campers.  It's right next to the river - be prepared to be up early - the Corellas are very noisy and there are lots of them.

If you decide to cross the Simpson from west to east, starting at Dalhousie, then you can follow the same route as far as Marree, but then head north west along the Oodnadatta Track to Oodnadatta.  After Oodnadatta, leave the Oodnadatta Track and bear right onto the Oodnadatta to Eringa Road.  There is nothing at Eringa except for a waterhole, but it's a nice spot to camp if you need too (is getting late or everyone is tired).  Although it's only about 190 k's from Oodnadatta to Dalhousie, the road can be hard work, with dust, corrugations and, if it's wet, mud.  Think carefully about fuel too.  Make sure you are topped up at Oodnadatta then you can head straight to Dalhousie and prepare for the crossing.  If you reach Dalhousie and find you need to top up before you head across, your only real option is to drive up to Mount Dare (about 90km's).  Fuel is available there but it is expensive.  My last visit there (June, 2015), diesel was $2.10 a litre).  There are very limited supplies at Mount Dare, so stock up with food and water before you leave home.  Oodnadatta has a good supply of food essentials, but there is not a huge selection and it is far more expensive than a metro supermarket.

Once at the camp ground at Dalhousie, make sure to have a dip in the thermal spring.  It feels great - like a warm bath.  Cold showers are also available and the toilet/shower clock is clean and well maintained. 

Not the best view of the springs - the entry point has steps. 

There are many different routes you can take across the Simpson Desert.  The most direct is the French Line.  We took the QAA Line from Birdsville, down to the French Line then left onto Knolls Track and headed most of the way across on the WAA Line before rejoining the French Line at the western end.  The maps you receive with the Desert Parks Pass are good and your route can be planned utilising them.  A quality GPS would be good too with the added bonus of being able to record (accurately) your camp sites; just in case you find a good one and want to use it again on your next trip.

If starting from Birdsville, you will hit the biggest dunes first.  About 35 km's out of Birdsville is "Little Red".  You can either drive up and over this one and follow the track to the next dune or you can head north parallel to the dune until you reach "Big Red" (it's only a few minutes drive from Little Red).  If you have come this far you may as well give Big Red a go.  I stopped just short of the top on the first go, but backed back down and got up no worries the second time.  Which gear you choose will depend on your vehicle.  Mine is a standard 4.2 diesel (no turbo) and the best gear for the more difficult dunes was second low.  I could start in this gear with no problems, so I didn't need a run up.  I just stopped at the base of the dune and drove up. The poor old engine was screaming at times, but it ploughed through quite well.  Some of the dunes didn't require low range and 2nd or 3rd high range was sufficient.  You really had to judge each dune as you approached.  Tyre pressures are the key and we had our tyres at 18 psi (one vehicle was at 16 psi).  We left the tyres at this pressure for the entire crossing only reinflating to about 25 psi when we reached firmer ground near the entrance to the Witjira National Park at the western end.  

Your vehicle will cop an absolute hammering.  The tracks leading up and down the sand hills themselves are very "chopped" up from drivers not deflating their tyres or not utilising 4wd.  This just makes your vehicle work harder and it really does damage the tracks.  At times it was necessary to have plenty of momentum to get up the dune and, because of the scalloping of the track, the car would actually bounce, with all four wheels leaving the ground at the same time.  You can imagine how both the driver, passenger(s) and all your gear gets thrown around.  The tracks were the same on the western slopes.  It certainly is a bumpy ride.  You can imagine then how hard your suspension is working.  We would stop every couple of hours to give the cars a rest.  The shock absorbers on the vehicles were red hot so to prevent them failing we would let them cool a little before heading off again.

This will give you some idea of driving the dunes - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNjlaJh8RCk

We only managed about 120 k's on the first day.  It was hard work, but very enjoyable.  You will never forget your first night camping in the desert.  It is eerily quiet, which is occasionally punctuated by the howl of a dingo.   The stars are incredible - it's indescribable really; I can't explain it.  Suffice to say it is something you really should experience.  Swags are great, being warm and easy to roll out, but obviously you can use whatever you are comfortable with.  Winter, being the best time of year to do this crossing, can be cold, especially at night, so make sure you pack warm clothing and bedding.    

A great camping experience.  No crowds here.

The dunes diminish in size (generally) as you head west, but there are still some tricky ones.  If heading east to west, the tracks veer right and then left at the tops of the dunes.  The drop offs can be quite steep, although nothing too drastic.  It pays to power off as you reach the top of each hill otherwise you may become airborne or miss the turn at the top altogether which would be disastrous.  It is common sense really.  Drive carefully and you won't have any worries. 

We didn't see a great deal of wildlife whilst crossing, except for the odd dingo and millions of Zebra Finches.  However, where there is water there is wildlife.  We stopped at Purni Bore on our way through to Dalhousie and the amount of birdlife here was incredible.  There is a large pool of water which attracts many different species.  A dingo was sighted here and, judging by the amount of dingo tracks, I would say they are regulars.  You can camp in a flat area opposite the bore itself alongside the track. 

Dalhousie  is a well set out campground and is very popular.  You won't have this to yourself (not in the peak winter season anyway), but the hot springs are worth it.  You will probably see dingos around the camp but if not you will certainly hear them.

Another camp site in the middle of the Simpson. 

The Simpson Desert Parks are closed from the 1st of December until the 15th of March every year.  This is because of the heat.  Even in spring and autumn it can be very hot out there.  Winter is by far the most popular time to cross.  Rain is infrequent and you are likely to encounter cloudless skies and temperatures in the high teens, low twenties.  Night time temperatures can be very cold and can drop below zero at times.  You can have a camp fire, but will need to take your own wood (the vacant area on my roof rack was utilised for the wood) and fires are now banned altogether in the Witjira National Park (so no fires at Dalhousie).

There are dumping points as you enter and leave Dalhousie and at Birdsville, so make sure you carry all your rubbish out with you. 

Although the amount of preparation required for a Simpson Desert Crossing is significant, do it if you can.  It is an incredible experience and one you will never forget. 

(Trailers are not currently banned, but I think it will probably happen at some stage.  Towing a trailer across the dunes would be a daunting task and I certainly wouldn't want to do it.  Authorities discourage the towing of trailers in the Simpson Desert and recommend you don't).